How Fibrocystic Breast Tissue Affects Mammograms

Mammograms are special X-rays for breasts that can help doctors find early signs of breast cancer. If you have fibrocystic breast tissue, a mammogram may be hard for your doctor to read.

Fibrocystic breasts have lumpy tissue, but it's not cancerous. Those lumps, as well as areas that could be cancer, show up as white spots on a traditional mammogram.

Your doctor might have trouble telling which white spots are normal and which may not be. If you have fibrocystic breasts, your doctor may need to use other ways to look for breast cancer besides a traditional mammogram.

What Is Fibrocystic Breast Tissue?

Fibrocystic breast tissue used to be called fibrocystic breast disease. But you don't really have a disease when you have fibrocystic breasts. You have a very common condition. These are the main signs of it:

  • Your breasts have denser (thicker) tissue
  • Your breasts have lumps that you may be able to feel
  • Your breasts might hurt or feel tender
  • The size of your breast lumps can change during your period cycle

This condition goes by several names:

  • Fibrocystic breast tissue
  • Fibrocystic breast changes
  • Fibrocystic breasts

Fibrocystic breast tissue doesn’t raise your risk of getting cancer. With fibrocystic breasts, though, you may have a harder time feeling a new breast lump or abnormal change. Talk to your doctor about the best ways you can stay on top of your breast health.

Self-Exams

Health experts don’t all agree on the value of breast self-exams. In 2015, the American Cancer Society (ACS) dropped breast self-exams from its recommendations. Instead, the ACS wants women to be familiar with the way their breasts usually look and feel, and to let their doctors know if they notice changes.

Some medical centers, meanwhile, teach women how to give themselves monthly breast exams. These may be especially useful if you have fibrocystic breast tissue. You’ll know better than anyone else whether certain lumps and bumps have always been there -- or if there seem to be changes in your breasts.

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Traditional Mammograms

Mammograms capture on film what the inside of your breast looks like. A mammogram technologist will place your breast between two plates. These plates flatten your breast and keep it still during the X-ray.

Mammograms can be uncomfortable. They may be painful if your breasts are already sore or tender because of fibrocystic breast tissue.

To ease pain from a mammogram, whether you have fibrocystic breasts or not, avoid having one right before or during your period. That’s when your breasts may be more tender than usual. You could also take over-the-counter pain medicine about an hour before your mammogram.

Digital Mammograms

Digital mammograms use newer technology than traditional, film-based mammograms. You still need to go through the steps (and discomfort) of a mammogram. But the radiologist -- a doctor who reads mammograms -- will get a better view of dense breast tissue.

Digital mammograms let doctors enlarge an area of tissue on their screen. They can also adjust the contrast of light and dark, which is especially useful for dense breast tissue. Digital mammograms can detect breast cancer more often than film mammograms.

Other Tests

Along with mammograms, your doctor may use other screening tools to get additional views of potential problem spots.

Ultrasound: When used with a digital mammogram, it can help doctors tell fibrocystic tissue from abnormal growths.

MRI: A breast MRI, like an ultrasound, is done along with a mammogram to give doctors a closer look at areas that might be abnormal.

This tool is useful for women who are at high risk of breast cancer. Doctors use it less often than ultrasound, though. That's because it's so sensitive that it can raise the risk of a false positive result.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on May 18, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: "What Is a Mammogram?" "What is Breast Cancer Screening?"

Mayo Clinic: "Fibrocystic breasts," "Fibrocystic breast changes: Linked to breast cancer?"

Johns Hopkins: "Fibrocystic Breast Tissue."

American Cancer Society: "American Cancer Society Releases New Breast Cancer Guideline."

Breast Cancer Research: "Not all false positive diagnoses are equal: On the prognostic implications of false-positive diagnoses made in breast MRI versus in mammography / digital tomosynthesis screening."

National Cancer Institute: "NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms."

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